Russia not on Trump's list of Pentagon priorities: Leaked memo worries establishment

Russia not on Trump's list of Pentagon priorities: Leaked memo worries establishment
President-elect Donald Trump is looking to focusing on defeating ISIS and cutting wasteful spending, according to communications between his transition officials and the Pentagon. Russia’s absence from the list, however, has alarmed some in Washington.

The top four priorities for the president-elect’s transition team are defeating Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), eliminating the sequester, developing a new cyber strategy and eliminating wasteful spending, according to a December 1 memo from Undersecretary of Defense for policy Brian McKeon.

The list was communicated to McKeon by Mira Ricardel, one of the leaders of Trump’s Pentagon transition team, according to the memo obtained by Foreign Policy magazine and published Tuesday.

Notably absent from the memo is Russia, which the current Pentagon leadership labeled the number-one threat to the US.

Foreign Policy cited the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, as saying that Russia “could pose an existential threat” to the US – more so than China, North Korea or IS, which rounded out the list. The link provided by the magazine refers to Dunford’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July 2015.

The US “foreign policy establishment – including large swaths of employees at the Pentagon, State Department and CIA – remains deeply skeptical of Moscow,” said the magazine. The article included quotes by former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia Evelyn Farkas and Brookings Institution scholar Steven Pifer, both known for hostility towards Russia.

Foreign Policy also reached out to Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges, commander of US Army forces in Europe. Without quoting him directly, the magazine reported that Hodges saying that the Pentagon and NATO have “revamped some training exercises specifically to replicate fighting Russian armed forces” and that US, British and Canadian troops were training Ukrainian forces who are “seeing daily combat with Russian-trained and equipped separatists.” Hodges reportedly also claimed that many of those units were led by Russian officers.

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While Trump’s transition team did not deny the authenticity of the memo, it reportedly said there was more to it than meets the eye.

“For the media to speculate that this list of issues represents all of the president-elect’s priorities is completely erroneous and misleading,” a Trump transition official, who insisted on anonymity, told Foreign Policy.

The published priorities list matches what Trump has addressed on the campaign trail, from pledges to defeat IS to promises to rebuild the US military and review expensive but ineffective weapons programs such as the F-35.